Why Somali Women Struggle to Get into Politics and Leadership

A delegate casts her vote during the electoral process to choose members of the Lower House of the Somali federal Parliament in Baidoa, Somalia on November 23, 2016. UN Photo/ Sabir Olad
Delegates wait to vote during the electoral process to choose members of the Lower House of the Somali federal Parliament in Kismaayo, Somalia on November 23, 2016. UN Photo

Fatuma Ibrahim, 36-year old mother of six, treks nearly a kilometer daily to fetch water for the domestic use.

Along millions of women in Somalia, Fatuma struggles for the provision of basic things in life like food, shelter and clean water to drink.

Living at a settlement in the outskirts of Garowe city, the capital of the semi-autonomous regional administration of Puntland, Fatuma’s least worry is the attainment of the elusive 30 percent slot for women in the local legislative assembly.

That particular hopelessness was manifested in the formation of the current local legislature where only one woman was nominated by the clan elders.

The members of parliament are nominated by a council of elders charged with a resolution of conflict and nomination of a representative to the local assembly.

“I feel isolated and it’s not a positive precedent,” Nimo Abdi Arshe, the only female member of the Puntland parliament noted. True to her statement, it’s the first time only one woman was nominated since Puntland declared its semi-autonomy in 1998 when five women were picked as members of the all-time male-dominated assembly.

The Somali community is a highly patriarchal society. A sustained effort to push for equal women representation by feminist and women leaders has not been fruitful.

Fawzia Yusuf Haji Adam, a member of the parliament and well-known figure in Somali politics, is the first Somali woman who has ever held the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Some religious leaders dismiss the 30% of women quota as a Western imposition.

However, a section of religious leaders offers support for women’s engagement in politics stating that Islam isn’t at odds with female political engagement.

Fatuma Dayib, the first Somali presidential hopeful stated that while western governments called for greater gender equality, they supported a system that placed female politicians at the mercy of male clan elders.

There are two reasons why women leadership is not a walk in the park in Somalia’s current political state—there are no women in the council that appoints a representative and no mechanism to make sure the 30% women quota is achieved.

Northern Kenya is among the regions in the Horn of Africa where Somalis are majority inhabitants.

It’s headquarters, Garissa County, is battling with a petition that seeks the disbandment of the local cabinet because it has not reached the constitutional threshold that allows women to make up two-thirds of the cabinet.

However, the governor, Ali Korane, defended his decision stating that the clan elders did not wish to be represented by a woman.

“It’s not my fault that I don’t have a woman in my cabinet. Blame it on the clan elders who rejected the idea of a woman as their choice,” governor Ali Korane said.

Despite other parts of the country easily attaining the two-thirds gender provision, the northern region remains the only part of Kenya where women leadership is a contested idea.

The relationship of women to their clan is also a delicate subject, especially for those who marry into another clan.

There are questions as to whether she represents her husband’s clan or that of her maiden family. Being unable to secure the full support of their clan puts these women at a financial disadvantage when it comes to political participation.

Another dynamic relates to whether women represent themselves as women first, or their clan.

Back in Somalia’s Puntland region, Ijaba Hosh an activist and parliamentary hopeful from the Nugal province said the community is placing hurdles in the way of achieving women leadership.

“Women are not allowed to occupy offices that offer political leadership despite being successful in other aspects of the society,” she said.

The hurdle Ijaba was referring to is the traditional approach of the Somali community to leadership and conflict resolution where women are not allowed to sit in a council of men.

In the 2016/17 selection process for a new parliament, Somalia enacted a 30% quota for women’s participation. Of the 329 prospective members for both houses of parliament, at least 99 should have been women.

This 30% quota was declared for previous Somali electoral cycles, but with limited results. In 2012, women garnered 14% of parliamentary seats, less than half the required amount.

That was an improvement from the 2000s, however, when women occupied approximately 8% of seats.

Omar Mohamud, a researcher at the think-tank ISS said more hurdles, however, are on the horizon.

“The 2020 election is planned as a one-person, one-vote process. Previous elections relied on clan elders or other delegates to select candidates – a restrictive process in which 99% of the country didn’t vote.

“The next election aims to open voting to all, although questions remain as to whether this will be possible in the time frame,” the Addis Ababa based researcher said.

He added that “Woman activists are concerned that without the 30% quota being enshrined in Somalia’s constitution, which is currently provisional, their hard-fought gains could be lost. This is because most people (including women) will likely vote along clan lines, and thus for male candidates.”

Many activists believe that it will take more than a campaign to achieve what appears like an elusive bid to have women at the top echelons of political leadership and representation.